At the Head of Some Classes, Desks Dismissed
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
Years ago, in a classroom that had chalk, blackboards and students seated in neat rows, teacher Lee Dorman had a desk of her own. But she found herself constantly roaming to oversee projects and answer questions. She never used the desk, so she got rid of it
"I just never figured out how on earth to teach sitting down," said Dorman, 58, a veteran teacher at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington County. She calls herself "a walker and a stalker." She carries what she needs in her pockets and keeps students in what she considers a useful state of alertness because they are never quite sure where she is going to be.
Here and there, a small but growing number of teachers is following Dorman's example, educators say, abandoning the traditional classroom power center. To them, a desk is really a ball and chain, distancing them from students.
"You're always moving around. I think you need a desk or something," a student complained to Aaronthomas Green, a middle school science teacher who works without a desk in Los Angeles. Green said he took the remark as a compliment.
With the new emphasis on raising achievement for all students, many teachers say they have to stay mobile to make sure they are reaching everyone in their classroom.
The no-desk movement seems to have had little visible impact on schools so far. David Horn, director of marketing communications for the School Outfitters Web site, said he saw no sign of teacher desk sales falling off. There appears to be no research on how many instructors have abandoned their desks and, in a field replete with specialist groups, there apparently are no declared associations of deskless teachers.
Judy Fedinick, a deskless third-grade teacher at St. Anne's Day School in Annapolis, joked about the need for more outreach. "Maybe we could travel like Doctors Without Borders to other countries and educate them on the value of eliminating the desk," she said.
Still, success stories among deskless teachers appear to have influenced plans for some charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently operated. Deskless teachers are more common in such schools because the schools themselves tend to encourage experimentation. Some charter school principals have banned teacher desks from classrooms and placed teacher workstations in group offices to facilitate lesson planning.
A pioneer of the movement is Rafe Esquith, who teaches at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles. He is nationally known for turning inner-city fifth-graders into Shakespearean actors. His small classroom is devoted to play rehearsals and other projects. Esquith said he discovered 20 years ago that he wasn't using his desk anymore.
"So one day we just left it outside," he said. "Like everything else at Hobart, it was gone by morning."
At the KIPP Aspire Academy in San Antonio, Director Mark Larson decided that none of his teachers would have desks when the charter middle school opened three years ago. Math teacher and assistant director Joyce Boubel said, "All the teachers work in one large room, thus allowing much more time for collaboration. When we are doing our planning, we are within shouting distance of all the other teachers to find out how we could integrate our lessons."
Ian Guidera, a founding teacher and associate director of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity public charter school in Los Angeles, said he ditched his desk because it seemed at odds with his image of what he should be doing. "I was either sitting with a group, teaching at a board, conferencing with a student or doing everything a teacher should do -- which is certainly not sitting at a desk when students are in the room," he said. The mental picture of a sedentary teacher "kind of makes me nauseous, actually," he said.
Green, who works at the same school, said he lost the need for a desk in his first year of teaching. Because he shared a room with another teacher, he kept his materials on a little table with wheels and sat on a nearby chair. But the table was needed for science demonstrations, and the chair was given to a new student. He abandoned the idea of a desk, he said, and "never looked back."
One of the most prominent no-desk advocates is Jason Kamras, the 2005 National Teacher of the Year. When he arrived at Sousa Middle School in the District 10 years ago, Kamras put his desk in a corner and used it only to grade papers. Then he moved to a different room and was able to redesign its layout. He removed the desk and installed file cabinets for documents and tables for lesson materials. Students, too, used tables rather than desks.
"Whenever I needed to sit down to grade, have a conference or plan, I would use one of the student tables," he said.
Kamras said he has seen many excellent teachers who have desks. What matters most, he said, is how teachers use them. "Does the teacher sit at it all day?" he asked. "Is it the central element in the room?"
If teachers wish to create "a less hierarchical, less traditional, more interactive and informal environment," education author Alfie Kohn said, one way to reach that goal is to shove desks "over to the side and [use] them more to store things than to sit behind."
At Kenmore Middle, Dorman moved into a new classroom two years ago. It had a desk. Her principal refused to let her get rid of it. So Dorman did exactly what Kohn suggested. She shoved the thing into a corner and uses it as a dumping ground.
"There comes a time when I am not sure if there might not be a student on my desk, covered with papers and junk mail," Dorman said. She said she makes sure nothing alive is trapped under the debris, tries to tidy up a bit and then returns to pacing the room, happy that she has no comfortable desk and chair to tempt her to slow down.